Proposals for police reform by Democrats are distressingly similar to prior proposals that have done nothing to fundamentally change policing. In fact, the vast majority of provisions in legislation introduced in Congress were recommended by a task force convened by President Barack Obama five years ago.
George Floyd was murdered by four Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Video showed Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane as Floyd repeatedly told them, “I can’t breathe.” The killing sparked more than ten days of intense rebellion.
Protesters also reacted to the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police on March 13 in a “no-knock” drug raid carried out against the wrong home. The narcotics officers that raided her home were not in uniform, and individuals inside the home thought criminals were burglarizing their residence so they fired their weapons at police.
A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council plans to “dismantle” or “abolish” the Minneapolis Police Department, which is under state investigation. Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender rejected “incremental reform” and declared, “Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”
City Council members do not know what a “whole new safety apparatus will look like.” Jeremiah Ellison, a member of the City Council, hopes to spend the next year talking with the Minneapolis community about what should replace the police department. However, Democratic Party leaders are hesitant or opposed to completely reimagining the role of police.
Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats introduced the “Justice In Policing Act” on June 8.
It proposes “additional standards” for “early warning systems” to identify police who routinely engage in “problematic” conduct. It proposes improved “use of force” procedures, “civilian review” procedures, traffic and pedestrian stop and search procedures, improvements to administrative due process requirements, further incorporation of video monitoring technology, increased training, and changes to juvenile justice and safety.
The legislation additionally includes tens of millions of dollars in funding for law enforcement grants that would go toward the “study of management and operations standards of law enforcement agencies.” Funds could be applied to “pilot programs” for “reforming” training, hiring, and recruitment.
Part of the omnibus legislation contains the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act,” which limits the use of some military-grade equipment. It notes $500 million worth of property was transferred to law enforcement and $6.8 billion worth of weapons and equipment were transferred to police in all 50 states and four territories in fiscal year 2017.
Members of Congress also propose $5 million a year for a Justice Department task force of bureaucrats that would be called the “Task Force on Law Enforcement Oversight.” It mandates the collection of federal data on traffic violation stops, pedestrian stops, frisk and body searches, and instances where officers use “deadly force” and contains an anti-lynching law.
It calls for the establishment of a “national police misconduct registry,” as well as the adoption of a “civil remedy” for anyone injured by “racial profiling” and a ban on federal “no-knock” warrants.
The legislation would expand the budget for grants from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office so more grants can be offered to police departments to hire additional officers, particularly officers who may be willing to live in the communities which they police.
Grants to enhance “civilian oversight” of “community policing” could be awarded by the COPS office, but if the grants were awarded to law enforcement agencies, officers would effectively determine what “civilian oversight” looked like.
‘A Wistful Desire To Return To The Halcyon Days Of ‘Officer Friendly”
Justin Hansford, the executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, wrote in Policing The Planet, “The idea of community policing emerged primarily in response to the social movements of the 1960s.’
“After generations of state repression produced racial unrest in Detroit, Watts, and other cities across the country, police recognized the need for a change in tactics,” Hansford recalled. “Building upon a wistful desire to return to the halcyon days of ‘Officer Friendly’ walking the beat, reformers promoted the idea that increased community contact would result automatically in increased community trust and goodwill.”
This is what the task force convened by Obama sought to do after uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015, which were sparked by police who killed Mike Brown and Freddie Gray.
“The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” proposed a “national crime and justice task force” to review “all components of the justice system.” It recommended law enforcement policies emphasize “de-escalation” and mandate “external and independent criminal investigations.” It recommended the collection of “use of force data,” as well as “demographic data” from stops, frisks, searches, summons, and arrests. And it recommended policies prohibiting racial profiling and ticket quotas.
Some of the recommendations were emblematic of the misplaced focus on how much black citizens “trust” law enforcement. For example, it was suggested that officers should carry business cards for distribution during encounters.
The task force further suggested that the Justice Department “develop and disseminate case studies that provide examples where past and present injustice and discrimination were publicly acknowledged by law enforcement agencies in a manner to help build community trust.”
Like Naomi Murakawa, associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, argued in Policing the Planet, “Black people don’t trust the police and they are correct not to. If we were to actually embrace that logic, the interventions would necessarily go deeper. The solutions then would not be about encouraging the police to behave more courteously (addressing people as “sir” or “ma’am”).”
“They have to be about addressing the project of policing, which I believe is the core of real critique in this case,” Murakawa added. “What is it that the police are doing? What is the scope of their power? What is the scale on which they operate? Not just the courtesy and respect with which they are performing each arrest, but why are there so many arrests? For so many little things? That is precisely the issue that is, for the most part, not being taken on by the Obama administration.”
Democrats’ plans for reform would further entrench “community policing” in such a way that tools of racial oppression and mass incarceration would likely persist.
Law enforcement typically have a “military siege mentality of racial conquest,” which means “community policing” risks turning any interactions into threats to black lives, according to Hansford.
“Door-to-door surveys become excuses for warrantless searches into the homes of unsuspecting community members,” Hansford contended. “Child registration programs, like on that took place in Mike Brown’s apartment complex a few days after his murder, become tools for intimidation. Meetings with handpicked civic and religious leaders become, at best, opportunities to gain additional community buy-in to already entrenched conservative ideals and, at worst, sites for law enforcement propagandizing.”
“Police are rewarded for making more arrests; prosecutors are rewarded for gaining more convictions with longer sentences. Why would these actors not use the tool of community policing for their own professional self interests?”
Hansford concluded, “Penetration of community life is a more effective means of civilian control for the state. In the face of mass resistance to mass incarceration, mass reeducation of the populace may be simply a smarter repressive approach than brute force alone.”
‘No More Band-Aid Or Temporary Fixes’
The “Justice In Policing Act” raises the issue of police using military-grade equipment, but remarkably, no provision attempts to deal with the policing of mass demonstrations, which has resulted in countless examples of police brutality over the past weeks.
Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called attention to the fact that it would add a Freedom of Information Act exemption for law enforcement officers’ names.
The American Civil Liberties Union described the part of the legislation that would direct “hundreds of millions more” in funds to law enforcement as a “nonstarter.”
“There can be no more band-aid or temporary fixes when it comes to policing, which is why we are calling for divestment from law enforcement agencies and reinvestment into the black and brown communities that have been harmed by over policing and mass incarceration. The role of police has to be smaller, more circumscribed, and less funded with taxpayer dollars,” stated Kanya Bennett, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden opposed “defunding the police” during a CBS interview. Instead, Biden claimed he supported “conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness” and whether they are “able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.”
The Biden campaign backs $300 million for COPS grants, increased diversity in police hiring, increased funding for body cameras, and increased funds for public schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Even Senator Bernie Sanders rejected calls to “defund” the police and declared support for more funds and training for officers. “I do believe that we need well-trained, well-educated, and well-paid professionals in police departments.”
But what the Biden campaign, Sanders, and various Democrats refuse to acknowledge is the reality that all of their proposals, were pursued to some extent after Philando Castile was killed by an officer in a St. Paul suburb in 2016.
“The year Philando Castile was shot and killed during his 49th routine traffic stop, this one for a broken tail light, the Minneapolis Police Department was halfway through a highly respected, three-year program designed to restore trust between the community and police,” Tessa Stuart, a staff writer for Rolling Stone, recounted. “Two years later, MPD had, by its own account, implemented a host of the trendiest police reforms: body cameras, de-escalation and crisis intervention training, mindfulness training. It even rewrote its use-of-force guidelines to emphasize ‘the sanctity of life.'”
Back in 1968, the Kerner Commission examined what led to riots in 1967 and offered its own recommendations. The recommendations in their report are nearly identical to what Democrats propose in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.
* Review police operations in the ghetto to ensure proper conduct by police officers, and eliminate abrasive practices.
* Provide more adequate police protection to ghetto residents to eliminate their high sense of insecurity, and the belief of many Negro citizens in the existence of a dual standard of law enforcement.’
*Establish fair and effective mechanisms for the redress of grievances against the police, and other municipal employees.
*Develop and adopt policy guidelines to assist officers in making critical decisions in areas where police conduct can create tension.
*Develop and use innovative programs to ensure widespread community support for law enforcement.
*Recruit more Negroes into the regular police force, and review promotion policies to ensure fair promotion for Negro officers.
*Establish a “Community Service Officer” program to attract ghetto youths between the ages of 17 and 21 to police work. These junior officers would perform duties in ghetto neighborhoods, but would not have full police authority. The federal government should provide support equal to 90 percent of the costs of employing CSOs on the basis of one for every ten regular officers.
The use of words like “Negro” and “ghetto” may date it, but Democrats could have taken this list and called it the “Justice In Policing Act,” and it would not be that much different.
Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, concisely argued, “As long as the basic mission of police remains unchanged, none of these reforms will be achievable.” That is, the United States will always have racist and brutal police officers.
“There is no technocratic fix. Even if we could somehow implement these changes, they would be ignored, resisted, and overturned—because the institutional imperatives of the politically motivated wars on drugs, disorder, crime, etc., would win out. Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing.”
Vitale further contended, “They may adopt a language of reform and fund a few pilot programs, but mostly they will continue to reproduce their political power by fanning fear of the poor, nonwhite, disabled, and dispossessed and empowering police to be the ‘thin blue line’ between the haves and the have nots.”
The majority of Democrats are unwilling to interrogate or meaningfully challenge the system of “broken windows” policing that underpins so much of what leads to violence, like the murder of George Floyd.
“The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years, a fundamental shift in the role of police in society. The problem is policing itself,” Vitale concluded.
And, unlike most establishment Democrats, activists pressing for the “defunding” of police grasp the fact that policing is the problem.